Hong Kong educators and a leading expert on suicide prevention have urged authorities to reduce the heavy workload of teachers to give them more time to provide vital counselling and support to students grappling with mental health issues.
The calls for action came after a university analysis of media reports found a recent increase in the number of youth suicides in the city, with 22 teenagers attempting suicide or taking their own lives between August and October this year compared with 11 over the same period in 2022.
“Students who commit suicide have a huge sense of helplessness and hopelessness,” Professor Paul Yip Siu-fai, founding director of the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), said on a radio programme on Saturday.
Yip, who oversaw the study, said the prolonged class suspension during the Covid-19 pandemic had resulted in a weak support network for students, who often found themselves with no one to turn to when they needed help, especially when facing academic challenges, a new environment or family issues such as their parents getting divorced.
Lawmaker Lillian Kwok Ling-lai, also a registered teacher, said educators, who often knew the students well, were swamped with work and did not have much time to counsel those who were struggling.
“I have followed a student case which required me to spend over an hour daily,” she said on the same programme. “But by the time I had finished the casework and my schoolwork, it was nearly 11pm and I had to wake up at 5am the next morning.”
Kwok accused education authorities of piling up assignments without scraping ones that were two decades old and obsolete.
“Over the past 20 years and more, the Education Bureau has kept adding things for schools to do,” she said. “This has amounted to 50 to 60 items and none have been taken out … why can’t they leave some space for teachers by scrapping some outdated ones?”
Kwok said the bureau had added another initiative to teachers’ to-do lists, pointing to the “mental health literacy” resource kit for schools to enhance student awareness of mental health.
Li Kin-man, a secondary school principal, echoed Kwok’s view that one of the key ways to help students was to reduce teachers’ workload.
“I agree that teachers serve as the goalkeepers of students’ mental health,” he said. “But you also need to give them time to stand at the goalpost. When teachers need to be goalkeepers, they do not have time to do other things.”
Yip said schools were overwhelmed by the workload assigned by the bureau, including a series of requirements related to national security education.
“Teachers also want to establish close rapport with students but they are just too busy as they also need to teach what the curriculum requires,” he said.
A father, who only gave his surname as Wan, lamented that the city’s education system was akin to “spoon-feeding”, saying his two kids were overwhelmed with homework before a long holiday and parents had no choice but to finish it together with them.
“Education authorities always emphasise that marks are not the ultimate goal in students’ learning,” he said. “But in reality, high marks are required at the end.”
The bureau earlier announced that it would give primary and secondary schools a grant of HK$80,000 (US$10,245) each, of which HK$60,000 will be allocated to schools and HK$20,000 to parent-teacher associations, to promote mental health.
It also asked schools to review pupils’ workload after an increase in the number of teenagers who attempted suicide or took their own lives over the past three months.
Both initiatives were announced in a circular sent to public and semi-private institutions on Thursday.
If you have suicidal thoughts, or you know someone who is, help is available. For Hong Kong, dial +852 2896 0000 for The Samaritans or +852 2382 0000 for Suicide Prevention Services.